Full Deck Enables Aces To Be Held

Jason Davis could start season in the rotation.

The month of March came in like a lion for the Indians. Hopefully, it will go out like a lamb.<br><br> In a matter of days, the Indians found out that the ace of their minor-league system, right-hand pitcher Adam Miller, won't be able to pitch in an actual game until at least mid-June, and that the ace of their major-league staff, C.C. Sabathia, won't be ready for the start of the season.<br>

That's not exactly the way you want to start a season.

Fortunately, neither injury required surgery and in both cases the length of inactivity prescribed by the organization is probably a bit longer than necessary. But when you are dealing with arms that could serve important roles for most of this decade, you tend to go overboard and err on the side of caution.

Miller's injury, a strained ligament in his right elbow, is a bit more serious and will keep him out of game action until June, when he is expected to join the rotation at Class AA Akron.

Chances are good that he will now spend the entire season with the Aeros, as opposed to an earlier plan that had him finishing up the season at Class AAA Buffalo and possibly even earning a September callup to the majors.

Sabathia, meanwhile, will likely miss one or two starts with a strained abdominal muscle. He reportedly has experienced no more pain while throwing in the bullpen.

The odd thing about Sabathia's injury is the fact he strained the muscle despite reporting to camp in the best physical condition of his career. From the stands, it might not appear he has slimmed down because he still insists upon wearing a baggy uniform, but when you see him up close, there is no doubt he has shed a few pounds (it's impossible to say how many because his weight has always been a well-kept secret), which should allow him to remain strong deeper into games.

Everyone knew that at some point adversity would strike this season. That is why so much emphasis was placed upon quality depth, both pitching and position player-wise.

Jason Davis, who had been ticketed for the bullpen, will move into the starting rotation in the No. 5 spot until Sabathia returns. And, quite frankly, the Indians really won't need a fifth starter until at least the third week of the season.

Off-days in the first two weeks should allow manager Eric Wedge to get by with Jake Westbrook, Kevin Millwood, Cliff Lee and Scott Elarton if he so desires. At this point, Wedge has not announced a decision on exactly what his plans are, although with a healthy Sabathia, he had indicated he was going to use all five starters even with the off-days.

If Sabathia's minor injury proves to be the most devastating blow the major-league club suffers this year, then it should be a very good season.

Of course, it won't be the most serious injury. Virtually every club in the history of baseball has suffered some type of devastating blow throughout the course of a season.

The beauty of this year's Indians club is the fact there is depth at virtually every position. And in some cases, the backup might actually be better than the starter.

I'm referring specifically to the shortstop position. Early indications are that Jhonny Peralta will be the starter on opening day in Chicago on April 4. While not exactly having a great exhibition season, he is doing better than his No. 1 challenger, Brandon Phillips, who appears to be pressing both at the plate and in the field.

Make no mistake, Phillips has no desire to go back to Buffalo, even for a short period of time. He wants desperately to prove that he should be the everyday starter.

Unless he falls flat on his face over the final to weeks of spring training, however, Peralta will be in the Opening Day lineup and Phillips, happy or not, will once again be a Buffalo Bison.

That doesn't mean Peralta is the best shortstop in camp. Jose Hernandez, signed as a free agent off the Los Angeles Dodgers' roster, was brought in to serve as a veteran backup at the position. He hit 13 homers with a .289 average in less than 100 games for the Dodgers last year, meaning he probably has more punch in his bat than Peralta, at least at this stage of the youngster's career.

Hernandez also probably has more range than Peralta, who will never make anyone forget about nine-time Gold Glove winner Omar Vizquel, arguably the best defensive shortstop in the history of the organization and one of the best in the history of the game.

The other position where the better man might be the backup is at second base, where Alex Cora, who also was acquired as a free agent from the Dodgers, will start the season serving as Ronnie Belliard's caddy.

Some might scoff at the notion of Cora being better than Belliard, whose first-half performance a year ago earned him a spot on the American League All-Star team. Indeed, Belliard was solid both offensively and defensively until September.

But he hit just .172 down the stretch, leading many to believe he ran out of gas. He played in 152 games, which was about 40 more than he was used to over most of his career. After hitting over .300 most of the season, Belliard's average dropped to .269 by the end of the year.

Ironically, Belliard's September swoon might be he only reason he is back with the Tribe. Had he hit .300-plus for the entire year, the Indians might not have been able to afford to bring him back.

Cora, who hit .264 with 10 homers and 47 RBI with the Dodgers last year, might not be as solid as Belliard at his best, but unlike a year ago, there won't be a dramatic drop-off in talent at second base when Belliard is not in the lineup.

That type of depth is what should help keep the Indians in contention in the AL Central for most or all of 2005.

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